The city's Public Utilities Department has suggested increasing rates to customers by 9.8 percent beginning in January, and an additional 6.9 percent next July 1. More increases would be set in future years.
The hikes would cover a combination of lower revenues as customers reduce consumption amid the drought, and higher expenses.
At a news conference Monday, Councilwoman Sherri Lightner said the planned increase means far more than paying a little more for water.
"The future of our water supply and water infrastructure depends on this rate increase, not to mention our quality of life,'' Lightner said. "In reality, San Diego's water rates are still lower than most local water agencies, and will remain so even after this rate increase.''
She said most of the hikes simply pass along the greater costs for imported water charged by the San Diego County Water Authority and Metropolitan Water District. Those costs have doubled over the past decade, she said.
Supporters of the increase said the money will help pay for necessary water infrastructure projects, such as replacing San Diego's aging water mains and building a system that will convert recycled water into drinking water.
They said not approving the increases would delay the projects, force the city to spend $2 billion to upgrade the Point Loma Wastewater Treatment plant, and require Public Utilities to spend down its reserve accounts -- which would catch the eyes of credit rating agencies, making capital projects costlier.
In their own news conference, detractors expressed opposition to the way the increases were being implemented.
Councilman David Alvarez said the hikes are unfair and don't offer incentives to cut back on consumption.
"Many San Diegans have followed the lead and have been very diligent in making sure that they conserve as much water as they possibly can over the last several months,'' Alvarez said.
"The water use has been reduced, and how are we going to say thank you to them? Well, the proposal here is to increase their water rates by 40 percent over the next five years,'' Alvarez said.
He said it's wrong that those who conserve will pay the same rates as those who waste water.
The proposal to be considered by the City Council at a meeting at the City Administration Building also includes higher rates for recycled water that is used for golf courses, landscaping and the like.
Representatives of the Otay Water District, which installed such a system in the 1990s and receives recycled water from San Diego, contend that their customers are going to be forced to subsidize the expansion of the so- called "purple pipes'' into northern areas of the city.
Mary Salas, the mayor of Chula Vista, said South Bay residents will have to pay $7.2 million more under the proposal than the cost of service because they've already paid for their system.
Lightner said Otay officials didn't have a problem with the recycled water rate structure until the increases were proposed.
Numerous organizations have backed the proposed hikes, including the San diego Regional Chamber of Commerce, San Diego County Taxpayers Association and environmental groups interested in water recycling.
A residential customer whose monthly bill is now around $36 would see it rise to just over $39, according to a city report. Customers now paying $71 would see their bills go above $77.